Photo Courtesy of Molly Steele

Eating Disorder Lies
from Someone Who Knows

By Monica Berg

Green Screen

When I was growing up, there was a sticker on our refrigerator that said, “Life is short; eat dessert first.” I loved that saying, which is ironic, because at that time I didn’t eat dessert at all, much less first. There was nothing in my life that even felt or tasted sweet. For a time, food was nothing more than something I could control; it was about being able to dictate when and what I ate versus reacting to my body’s desires. I took strength from not desiring food at all. I felt so emotionally empty inside that I made myself physically empty. I held a belief that I deserved the very minimum in life, including food, although at the time I didn’t see the correlation.

The result was a five-year battle with anorexia and body dysmorphia. My perception of myself was distorted. It was the darkest and saddest time of my life. I felt so alone, so lost, and without a clue as to who I was. These feelings were so uncomfortable for me that I wanted to jump out of my own skin. I didn’t feel that I deserved love or happiness, therefore I didn’t give myself the permission or the voice to express any desires for myself.

To assuage my discomfort, I would run. I was always running something off: frustration, fear, the feelings of being stuck and trapped. I wanted to run until I was so tired and depleted that no one could take anything from me because there was nothing left to give. I usually felt a comforting nothingness only after a twenty-mile run—which I did a few times a week—at which point I was left too tired to fight, to want, to desire, to dream.

Along with running, there was another practice I adhered to. Every day, I would go into the bathroom and conduct a pinch test—grabbing bits of skin between my thumb and index finger to ensure I had no fat deposits. It was a thorough investigation I performed every day. If I’m being honest, I did this anytime I passed a mirror, yet I still couldn’t see the harm I was doing.

One morning, upon waking, I was in the bathroom, my nightshirt pulled up above my waist, conducting yet another pinch test in front of the mirror, when I caught sight of myself. Suddenly, I broke free of the trance I had been in for years. Instead of seeing the “obese” person I usually saw, I saw what I really looked like. Staring back at me was a skeletal, virtually unrecognizable stranger. I was horrified. I mean truly horrified. I saw no resemblance to the girl that I had seen in the mirror for the first nineteen years of my life. Now the image in the mirror was a young woman who was well on her way to slowly killing herself. I started to panic, screaming for my mother at the top of my lungs. Crying, we hugged each other as if we were both hanging on for dear life.

This is my story, but there are countless others out there that share similar stories.

I call this awakening the gift of sight. Although in the days, weeks, and months following, I returned to seeing the “obese” girl, I knew then that it wasn’t real and that I needed help. I started asking myself questions, like: What is propelling me to starve myself nearly to death? Why would I do this to myself? What is so unfulfilling in my life that I would physically sabotage myself in this way? This was the beginning of a long journey to recovery and healing.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, body dysmorphic disorder affects 1.7 to 2.4 percent of the general population. That equates to about one in every fifty people. The coping mechanisms may differ, the degree of extremes may vary, but one thing is constant: a persistent and obsessive preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance. While shame is undoubtedly the fuel for the fire, what it ultimately comes down to is a deep and insatiable need for control.

My life at the time of the onset of anorexia felt like it was spiraling out of control. My unhealthy relationship with food was, ultimately, nothing more than a desire to gain that control back. That day in the bathroom, I finally saw it. I was lonely; I wanted to be loved. I had a deep need to find purpose and belonging. More than anything, I wanted to be happy. I could see where my choices were going to take me. I made a decision that I mattered, and I was hell-bent on finding a way to create a life that echoed that sentiment.

We all have aspects of our lives that we are running away from. Once they are called into the light, once they are seen, they no longer have the same power to derail your life. Moving from self-sabotage to awareness means gazing unflinchingly at the most troubled and difficult parts of yourself—not from a place of judgment but rather from a place of kindness. To help you shift your thoughts to ones of acceptance, there are a few things I’d like you to know and, more importantly, to live:

1. Your body is part of your expression. You are physically strong. When you focus on strength, health follows. Every day, acknowledge all of the ways your body helps you experience your life, no matter how you happen to look at this time: the way your feet carry you from place to place, how your heart pumps your blood effortlessly, the way your breath fills your lungs, the way the sun feels on your skin. Your body is so much more than its physical appearance.

2. Never be ashamed of who you are or what you want. Follow your bliss. Do what lights you up, and move away from things that drain your energy or make you feel less than worthy. You deserve joy even if you don’t believe it yet, so do one thing each day that brings a smile to your face. Do your best to never give up on who you are or what you believe in for someone else. You are worthwhile and whole just as you are.

3. Make friends; find community. Friendship not only brings happiness and connection into our lives; it also promotes health. Find a friend or a group that you can share your journey with. Support others who are going through something similar and, just as important, let yourself be supported, too.

4. Real beauty is knowing your worth. If you struggle to feel beautiful, bring your focus toward finding self-worth first. What are some things that you like about you? It might be a short list at first, and that’s okay. When you offer more appreciation to the parts of you that you are proud of, you’ll find more and more appearing every day. Don’t waste years of your life trying to convince yourself that you are beautiful. You are.

5. It’s them, not you. So often, the things we most dislike about ourselves can be exacerbated by the hurtful words and actions of others. I’m here to tell you that nearly every time someone hurts you, lashes out, or says something that makes you feel unworthy, it’s a manifestation of their own pain. It has very little to do with you. Everyone is fighting their own battles, and conflicts will arise. While you can learn something from every experience, other people’s judgments are not facts.

6. Give back. As you continue on your road to recovery and get stronger day by day, eventually you will find yourself in balance. You will be living a fulfilling life of health and confidence, and you will be an example of what is possible for everyone who struggles. Find ways to share your story, to help others, and to give back.

I struggled with anorexia quietly, as most of us do. But I won’t be silent about any struggle that I endure again. If my story helps one person avoid the pain I suffered, then I have to tell it, repeat it, shout it, and tell you that you, too, can overcome your struggle, whatever it may be: body dysmorphia, an eating disorder, or a lack of body confidence. You have the power and ability to change your belief systems. One of our greatest strengths as humans is that we can change and redirect our thoughts, thereby changing our reality. Each of us is worthy of a life of happiness and fulfillment simply because we exist. It is our birthright.

Editor’s note: For anyone seeking help with an eating disorder, it can be difficult to know where to start. This guide is an introduction to the different types of treatment, as well as centers that help adults, adolescents, and children recover from disorders and establish healthy relationships with food.

Monica Berg shares her combination of wisdom and real-life awareness with talks found compelling by a wide range of men and women at different stages in their lives. She not only leads people to see how they can change but also inspires them to get excited about a lifestyle of change. Berg is the author of  Fear Is Not an Option and serves as the chief communications officer for the Kabbalah Centre International. You can read more from her here.